Franny and I belong to a study group, whose members were already pushing old age when we joined 19 years ago. One day I asked them to participate in a little bit of research. “Sure,” they said, because they generally like me. Until I announced the subject: What’s it like to be old. “Old? Who’s old?” I thought they were kidding. With the exception of Franny, our ages range from 76 to 87. We had already lost a member to cancer. Others have suffered heart attacks, strokes—you name it. Still, when I pressed, they looked at me like I had belched, loudly and involuntarily in public.
Mine was more than a breach of etiquette. It was as though I had challenged their identity, or maybe their lives. “I’m old,” I declared, trying to break through their resistance with my own candor. They didn’t bite. To accept their age meant accepting society’s stereotypes of aging, including the likelihood of being dismissed and disdained, a self-portrait they must not internalize.
The fight isn’t only against the way we are pigeon holed; it’s also a cry for independence, for control of our lives. In spite of the way that old folks are portrayed in the movies, we are not children, bumbling idiots, or simply shells of our former selves. We know ourselves pretty well; and we don’t want to be told who we are or what to do.
Their opposition to what they imagined would be the premise of my research, then, was necessarily fierce and sustained.
Every culture has its unofficial, generally unstated ideas about everything, including marriage, parenting, well being, morality, and old age. Collectively, these ideas can be called a cultural narrative. They come to us through word of mouth, through TV, film, and other social media. The stories and images are ubiquitous. Growing up in a given culture, we hardly know that we are taking them in; and, after a while, it is hard to distinguish them from what we think of as our own feelings and thoughts.
The struggle to make that distinction, the struggle to know ourselves as distinctive individuals, to determine our own character, is one of life’s great dramas.
The drama plays out with particular intensity during old age because old people have lost many of the defining activities and social arrangements—family and work, especially—that once served as barriers between themselves and the influence of cultural imagery.
The contemporary narrative of old age is familiar to most of us. It differs from the narratives of other eras and other cultures, where the accumulated experience of old people is venerated. Instead, it emphasizes a loss of vigor, competence, and productivity, and the absence of knowledge that’s appropriate to and valued by society now. American culture generally glorifies youth and fears—sometimes, despises—old age. Just look at comic or tragicomic portraits of old people in TV, film, and popular fiction. At best, we forgive our old people their incompetence or chuckle affectionately at their bumbling ways. At worst, we distance ourselves from their neediness and dependence. And we are offended when they take the places of better qualified youth and drain the resources of the already beleaguered younger generations.
Even more painful, I think, is the narrative of continual, remorseless decline and diminishment. Accordingly, bodies grow weaker and demand more attention. Minds grow slower and command less respect. Instead of continued leadership in families and communities, old people become invisible.
We may fight the inevitable with exercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery but, in the end, there’s nothing much we can do about it. We might slow or modify the downward journey but that’s all. For the most part, we accept its inexorable logic. Perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, we internalize the fundamental message of the narrative. Margaret Morganroth Gullett puts it beautifully: “We are aged by culture.”
What this means is that we filter our actual, distinctive experience through the cultural imagery. We live as though the narratives are more real than any genuine feelings that don’t quite fit the narratives. It’s hard to escape their omnivorous desire to tell us who we really are. So we discard large parts of ourselves.
This does not mean that we fall before putting up a fight. During the last few decades, the Baby Boomers, anticipating their own decline and accustomed to having their way, have championed an alternative narrative. They call it “Successful Aging.”
John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn, whose book popularized the “successful aging” movement, tell us that healthy aging involves three main factors: (1) being free of disability or disease; (2) having high cognitive and physical abilities, and (3) interacting with others in meaningful ways. This calls upon us to eat good food, to exercise regularly, and to cultivate a friendship circle or close community ties around churches, synagogues or more secular venues. Follow this prescription and you will live a (relatively) happy and fulfilling life.
But after reading enough “successful aging” stories, they began to feel a little strained. The stories look as much like admonitions as reports. The promises seem more aspirational than actual.
Divergence from “successful aging” is too often a cause for shame. There must be something wrong with you if you succumb to illness, lethargy, or fear. There must be something you have done or, worse still, something inherent in your character. If you were a good person, a strong person, a purposeful person, you would be headed towards your goals. You might fail sometimes but eventually, with effort and the will to succeed, you would get there. When you don’t, it calls everything about you—your history, your character, sometimes your family or your education—into question.
Cultural narratives, both negative and positive, however, are just that. They are like theories. And, as the great anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, once said about theory, “The map is not the territory.” It is not the whole, complex, confusing, and often messy truth about our lives. It misses the telling details by which we know ourselves. We make a terrible mistake when we reduce ourselves to a map or a narrative.
It makes no sense to yield entirely to either the anticipation of “healthy aging,” as though we could pursue the fountain of youth, or to the idea of remorseless decline. Nor to bounce back and forth between the two: “I’m decrepit. No, I’m not. I can be as strong and healthy as ever. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t want to deceive myself. But maybe if I felt better about myself, I could ‘succeed’ as an old person.”
In my view, it is far better to embrace the whole: the vitality and the decline, the freedom from obligations and the loss of place—and the terrible knowledge of mortality. And all those experiences in between. We are all of these things. And more. We never fit entirely within stereotypes. We know this truth when we take seriously the discrepancies between experience and narrative, when we don’t try to adjust ourselves to a “reality” described by others.
Each of us has our own experience. It’s a matter of knowing ourselves and trusting our own perceptions. Only then can we separate ourselves from the cultural narratives of old age.
I know this to be true. I am aging. I don’t know how fast or completely. But I am. And I am alive with energy and thought. I am mortal, and with each friend whose death I mourn, mortality grows more prominent in my thoughts. I have just so many days and months and years to live. That’s a fact.
But when I live my days fully I don’t think very much about decline and death. I lose myself in the complexity and spaciousness of my life, which isn’t just a passage to death or to health. It is more like a field of flowers, steams, and rock formations, busy with people and ideas. Unlike a narrative or a pre-determined journey, the field is alive with possibilities. When I am present in those fields, my life takes on a timeless quality.